Each year, they appear as surely as the first frost: coppery, malty and sometimes savory beers whose leafy, golden labels darken store shelves from early September to just past Halloween.
Seasonal autumn beers can be polarizing. Some cringe at the mere mention of pumpkin beer, while others eagerly anticipate the arrival of the special brews. A few local retailers say they sell out fast, whether the beers are flavored with pumpkin, Thanksgiving spices or even spruce tips.
Though Oktoberfest beers go back 200 years — to the 1810 wedding fête of King Ludwig of Bavaria — not all fall beers hew to the traditional profile of a Munich-brewed malty lager. Rather, they can run the gamut from black IPAs and brown ales to porters and smoked beers.
In advance of regional Oktoberfest celebrations, a few Seven Days staffers gathered to bravely — and blindly — taste seven brews that fit the season. It was impossible to include all the options, as some had not yet been released, Oktoberfest beers from Zero Gravity Craft Brew and Lost Nation Brewing among them. We sampled two Oktoberfest beers, two pumpkin ales and a few other warming specimens.
Our panel ranged from beer aficionados who could hold forth on balance and finish (digital media manager Tyler Machado and designer Aaron Shrewsbury) to a very occasional beer drinker we invited into the mix (marketing director Corey Grenier). Also on the tasting team were enthusiastic swiller and production manager John James — who is partial to hoppy beers and “any beer that someone else pays for” — and assistant circulation manager Matt Weiner, an all-around beer lover.
The tasters did not know what was in their glasses until the big reveal, so we’ll likewise name the beers only after we’ve reported their reactions.
Appearance: Corey called this “amber,” while Tyler saw “warm orange tones.” Aaron compared its color to “an artificial tan.”
Nose: “Mmm, smells like a Flemish red,” noted Aaron, detecting some vinegary notes. John commented that it “smells like a pile of leaves.” Others found the aromas weak and indistinct.
Taste and texture: “Sweet and a little yeasty,” noted Matt. John found this beer “smooth, refreshing and very light,” while Tyler judged it low in both carbonation and hops, as well as “very malt forward. Not my style,” he added, “but I could drink it effortlessly.”
The takeaway: The group sipped this cheerfully, which spoke to the beer’s balance — but it also seemed to underwhelm. “Tastes like Joey Fatone,” commented John.
The brewery says: “In celebration of Bavarian tradition, we brew Otter Creek Oktoberfest with German Hallertau and Tettnang hops to balance its slightly sweet malt flavor.”
The beer: Otter Creek Oktoberfest , $8.99 per six-pack, 4.9 percent alcohol.
Appearance: Everyone noticed this beer’s cloudiness as soon as it was poured. Corey said, “It looks like cola.” “Dark reddish-brown with a thick, light head,” noted Tyler. John said, “It looks like sap,” while Aaron called it “intensely brown.”
Nose: “It smells like a rainstorm — fresh and clean,” reflected Aaron. “This has the most fall smell — spices, leaves,” Matt said.
Taste and texture: “Sweet at first, but I’m getting a lot of spice, too,” said Tyler. “It’s almost like a winter warmer.” Matt’s first sip was “smooth,” he said, followed by a barrage of spice. Non-beer-drinker Corey offered this faint praise: “It doesn’t make me cringe.”
The takeaway: Though this wasn’t brewed specifically as a fall beer, the crew crushed on its autumnal flavors and “really nice blend of spices, carbonation and hops,” as Matt put it.
The brewery says: “[A] beautiful chestnut-brown-colored beer. It is fermented at an unusually cool temperature, which slows down the fermentation … This brown ale has a rich roast caramel flavor, with a subtle sweetness in the finish, delicately balanced with hop undertones.”
The beer: Switchback Slow-Fermented Brown Ale, $4.99 per 22-ounce bottle, 5.2 percent alcohol.
Appearance: Everyone “oohed” as this was poured. John said, “That’s what I’m talking about.” “It’s nearly black,” noted Tyler, while Corey called its color “dark, syrupy, dense.” Matt thought it resembled “very thick molasses.”
Nose: “Chocolatey, acrid, delicious,” wrote Aaron in an unlikely combination of descriptors. “I’m getting a little spruce tip,” offered Tyler, though he admitted his sinuses were clogged.
Taste and texture: After one sip, Tyler declared, “This is the beer that taught me about spruce. I can feel it coat my throat. I’m tasting a little piney, sprucey flavor, but it’s very sweet, too. Probably pumpkin?” Aaron thought the brew was “savory — lighter than a stout, with subtle hops. It’s phenomenally well balanced.”
The takeaway: Despite Corey’s aversion to the hops — which she said “creeped up my throat” — most everyone felt the love for this inky beer that harbored complex flavors and smoldering bitterness.
The brewery says: “It’s a big stout brewed in the colonial fashion, with large amounts of pumpkins and spruce tips added to the kettle for flavor and bittering qualities. The pumpkins complement the malt flavors and are used to add sugars to the mash. Whatever you do, do not think this is going to taste like pumpkin pie.”
The beer: Rock Art Extreme Pumpkin Imperial Spruce Stout , $5.99 per 22-ounce bottle, 8 percent alcohol.
Appearance: While both Corey and Tyler thought this “looked like vanilla extract,” John described it as solidly “amber.”
Nose: Both Aaron and Matt detected a “fruity aroma.” Aaron added, “like a Jack Johnson beer.” Others had trouble finding any distinct smell.
Taste and texture: “Nonintrusive, with a peak of sweetness,” was Matt’s assessment. Aaron remarked, “Unremarkable ether. Inert. Tastes like air.” Tyler thought this beer tasted “like a pillow,” and others noted it was “soft,” “malty” and “light.”
The takeaway: The beer didn’t have much presence for this panel, which seemed eager to move on.
The brewery says: “Several malts, including Munich and chocolate, deliver the malty character. The delicate hop aroma is not overpowering, and the Willamette hops provide a gentle bitterness which balances well with the residual sweetness.”
The beer: Harpoon Octoberfest , $8.99 per six-pack, 5.5 percent alcohol.
Appearance: Hardly anyone noted this beer’s color — they were too busy taking deep whiffs.
Nose: “It smells ‘festive,’ like chai and spices,” Aaron said, while Corey noted, “It smells like apple pie, like grandma.” “Like potpourri,” chimed in John. “I’m going to go with a pumpkin beer, just a hunch here,” Tyler remarked.
Taste and texture: The group described it as tasting of cinnamon, spices and gingerbread. “Some serious nutmeg in this thing,” John declared. Aaron was solidly in love with this beer — “soothing,” “wonderful” and “lovely” all made it into his notes.
The takeaway: John summed it up: “It’s Thanksgiving. The Cowboys and Lions are playing, Mom’s in the kitchen and I’m on the couch hung over.”
The brewery says: “This limited-release seasonal treat is small batch brewed with pumpkins, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, with increased malts and a touch of bitterness for the perfect balance.”
The beer: Long Trail Imperial Pumpkin Ale Brush and Barrel Series , $5.50 per 22-ounce bottle, 8 percent alcohol.
Appearance: Matt was the only one who paused to note the color of this aromatic powerhouse, calling it “a light caramel.”
Nose: Bacon, beef and summer sausage sprang to everyone’s minds, while Tyler compared it to “a fall campfire.” “It’s like a meal,” observed Corey, who then scrunched up her face. “It smells like a Slim Jim, and this makes me want to drink it,” Aaron intoned. “Bonfires. That’s intense!” said John.
Taste and texture: “Smoky, sweet and smooth,” Matt noted. “The smoke doesn’t overpower, though,” added Tyler, and Aaron agreed that the beer was “savory, and the smoky taste is very subtle.”
The takeaway: Tyler was ready to break out some bacon-wrapped scallops, while John wanted to take the rest of the growler home.
The brewery says: “This style is brewed using a majority of beechwood-smoked malt (smoked in Bamberg). The smoke character is well integrated and balanced by a hint of roasted malt and German hops.”
The beer: Zero Gravity Smokey the Beer , $9 per growler (plus $4 deposit) at American Flatbread Burlington Hearth, 5.2 percent alcohol.
Appearance: “Black like coffee,” Matt observed. “Very dark, reddish brown,” added Tyler, who also found the head “kinda thin.”
Nose: “Really, really piney,” noted Tyler. “Medicinal, yet inviting,” said Aaron, while Matt detected “bubble gum.”
Taste and texture: The dark color duped Tyler. “Far hoppier than I expected, with a little malt on the finish,” he said. John nailed it: “It’s kind of dark and hoppy and aggressive, like a black IPA.”
The takeaway: “I would drink it all day,” John declared, and the consensus seemed to be that this was an intriguing and drinkable brew.
The brewery says: “This dark IPA is built on a malt canvas of American base malts with the addition of a dehusked black malt to give it a dark color and slight roasty flavor without imparting dark, burnt, bitter or intensely roasty flavors … Summit, Chinook and Simcoe hops provide clean, pine and citrus flavor and firm bitterness.”
The beer: Grateful Hands Brewing Common Sense Black IPA , $7.49 per 22-ounce bottle, 5.4 percent alcohol.